Wednesday, July 20, 2005

From the bowels of the Avodah list

My apologies to Marc B. Shapiro. Future posts in the From the Bowels Of... series will not focus on his interesting posts, but other interesting points from high level Jewish discussion mail archives.

Shapiro writes

"...has caused me to wonder whether halakhic Jews can really be historians and tell the truth, and I think maybe R. Schwab and others are actually representing Jewish law when they call for censorship. Let me explain.

Let's say in doing research on a sage I discovered that he had an affair or that he spent time in jail in his youth. Presumably, in a biography this should be included, but I think it is clearly a violation of the laws of lashon hara. I guess the case can be made that if these events have no impact on the sage's future life, even from the standpoint of history there is no need to record them as this will needlessly tarnish him to destroy someone, However, most historians would no doubt say that this is a judgment that has to be left to the reader (note the controversy over the Arendt-Heidegger letters and the recent Koestler biography). From a halakhic standpoint, even if this fact was well known at the time, it can't be repeated today, since today people don't know it and especially since it can be assumed he repented. (I say this as someone who knows more "dirt" about certain great sages than he ever wanted to know, all gathered from written sources! Is it "listening" to lashon hara to read something?) This is one problem with writing true history.

Or let's say I discover that a rabbinic sage was a Nazi collaborator (I have not!). On the one hand you could say that this action ipso facto removes him from gadol status and since he did a terrible thing it must be revealed so that no one respects him anymore (uprooting wickedness is a positive thing). Or you can say that he must have repented later and thereofore to reveal it is a violation. In this case however, all historians will agree that it must be revealed. What does Jewish law say? If he is respected in the community, and has lived a good life for 40 years, presumably it is forbidden to reveal this. Thus, one cannot write a good biography of this person. Ergo, true history cannot be written by halakhic Jews.

Getting back to the first case. Let's say this well-known rabbinic figure had a child out of wedlock (there is such a case) and throughout his life had a close relationship with the child, or alternatively abandoned the child and refused to support it. These facts certainly say something about the person's character and it is impossible to write a biography without taking them into account. But would Jewish law permit one to?

There has yet to be an article discussing how one can write history within halakhic bounds. If I discover something negative about a person, which was well known in its time, and thus not lashon hara to repeat 100 years ago, but is today forgotten, according to Jewish law it probably cannot be repeated today. How then can one write history truthfully, exposing the flaws as well as showing the good? Presumably you can't, which is why Artscroll chooses to only focus on the good. It is not just that they are interested in creating hagiographa, but they are no doubt concerned with halakhic strictures.

I don't know where this ends? Presumably it would be forbidden to write a biography of R. Jacob Emden because one would have to discuss all the things he did and said and anyone who does this will come off thinking he is totally mad or thinking that R. Eybschuetz is a total low-life. Religously speaking, both of these are presumably not acceptable outcomes. So is it any surprise that the "Orthodox historian" will ignore the entire dispute?

History is about reporting the truth and interpreting it. If I discover that a certain gadol -- actually why do I keep mentioning gadol, even if I discover about a regular guy -- that he was involved in some event which reflects poorly on him, it seems that it is forbidden to report it. And if it is already publicly reported, then how can one interpret it, and cast judgments, which is also forbidden. How then can one do history? Maybe one cannot? Let's take the story of the Belzer rebbe and assume the worst, what is the halakhic rationale for repeating the story? The rebbe was a gadol and even if he erred in the worst way, or even if you think he "sinned", mustn't one assume that he did teshuvah, so why tarnish his reputation? From a religious standpoint, the Haredi position makes perfect sense, although it is of course not history.

A long time ago I told a leading Orthodox historian that the article he should write is how can halakhic Jews write history without falling into lashon hara. I am still waiting.


Marc Shapiro

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